UAA, vegetation management, virtual reality

Virtual Reality Tools Expand Visual Learning

May 11, 2018
Surprising applications of newer technologies could transform vegetation management.

According to William Bradford’s "Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art," the population can be divided into three types of learners: visual learners constitute 65% of the population, followed by verbal learners at 30% and experiential learners at 5%. If two out of every three people learn visually through flow charts, diagrams and demonstrations, then it makes sense to cater training programs to visual learners.

Virtual reality (VR) is expanding as a tool for visual learning. The familiar 2-D training tools commonly used in the office or shop can be enhanced using 3-D VR modules for training, real-time supervision and contract development, to name a few of the possible applications.

While VR technology may be best known for use in the gaming industry, applications are developing across many other industries, including vegetation management. Surprisingly, creating educational VR with off-the-shelf technology can be easy and affordable.

Getting Started with Virtual Reality

ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. and Stan Vera-Art, of Grow with Trees, recently assembled educational VR packages for rights-of-way (ROW) vegetation training and management. The ingredient list was simple: a Samsung 360 camera for recording, a VR headset for viewing and editing software for splicing together series of pictures and adding educational media. The process was straightforward and intuitive, even for technologically conservative individuals.

The cost to outfit one field technician with a Samsung 360-degree camera, extension wand, memory cards, carrying case and other accessories is approximately $300, and any model of Samsung smartphone S6 or newer is capable of supporting VR. Editing software is available from a variety of carriers and typically modestly priced as an annual renewable service.

Experiencing 360-degree VR is even easier than creating it. A digital gyroscope inside a VR-capable smartphone moves the displayed imagery with the viewer’s head movements from side to side and up and down. Just as in reality, the image tracks the viewer’s orientation. While VR is often referred to as 360 degrees, it is closer to a full 720 degrees, just as in real life. For some, this can be a little disorienting, so a swivel chair works well for viewing 3-D VR.

ArborMetrics Solutions now captures 360 imagery on ROW in Canada, enabling customers to experience its management solutions from an office setting, without having to travel to a site. Similarly, to promote environmental stewardship, Grow with Trees uses the technology to take vegetation managers on a virtual tour of ROW where healthy, compatible and diverse ROW vegetation thrives.

Grow with Trees recently completed a VR project for a pipeline company. A remote pipeline, scheduled for replacement, was photographed in 360 degrees for use by vegetation managers and contractors. More than 330 images were collected across nearly 9 miles of a steep, remote mountainous stretch of ROW traversing a national forest. The final product included the sequenced VR images amended with notes collected in the field. Managers and contractors can simply scan a quick-response code on their smartphone to view a three-day hike in a manner of minutes from their office chair. The pipeline project was undertaken to meet environmental assessment regulations and provide contractors the opportunity to see the ROW prior to bidding.

Often, 360-degree images can serve not only as a record of a project’s baseline condition but also as an enhanced monitoring tool for documenting and reviewing results. Geographically referenced 360-degree images can be loaded into Google Earth or attached to dropped pins. The Google Earth KMZ file format is simple and free to share via email, and it can be easily uploaded to a smartphone.

The 360-degree imagery also can be viewed online. Chrome and Firefox offer the opportunity to explore 3-D without the use of a VR headset. The imagery can be displayed on a personal computer screen with orientation controlled by the mouse.

Finally, VR technology can be taken a step further by livestreaming images from the field to the office. For example, a technician can receive real-time advice from a supervisor or content expert back at the office or even across the country.

Augmented Reality

While what has been discussed thus far is conventional VR, augmented reality (AR) also is entering the vegetation management industry. AR tools provide another exciting option for an expanding work palette. AR can be used to overlay data and other imagery on top of real-world objects, models or other visuals. While VR is immersive, AR supplements immersion with tangible objects. AR can be applied onto any surface or onto AR lenses. This is an exciting tool that can lead to connecting multidepartmental and interdisciplinary teams.

AR is an excellent tool for training. Imagine a training environment where one could physically touch a tree and see information on tree biology, species, local history, past management practices and site conditions. The strength of this type of integrated training is it satisfies all learning types, not just visual. AR learning is impactful and memorable. It speaks to the culture that needs to be created within an advancing industry — respect for the past and hope for the future.

AR also is an excellent resource for field service, operations and quality control. AR/VR tools can be used for prescription, work reviews and monitoring. A prescription can be made that accounts for local conditions, environmental concerns, stakeholder permissions and historical information. Prescriptions can be delivered to the utility, foresters and operational crews through a simple transfer.

In addition to interpreting work records, spreadsheets or paper-based work packages, crews can visualize work information through an AR/VR tool. AR/VR tools for field use can range from a wearable headset or projector glasses (like safety glasses) to even the simple use of a smartphone with the Magic Window app for viewing 360 imagery without a headset. After work has been completed, imagery can be used for quality control activities, post-work audits, investigations and compliance assessments.

Hearing From Users

Lewis Payne, a ROW/environmental manager from the New York Power Authority (NYPA), was offered the opportunity to go out and take 360-degree pictures to showcase his transmission ROW. He was excited to have a high-tech means to share the integrated vegetation management (IVM) program success with his organization.

Payne reflected: "I had a lot of fun choosing the locations, videoing and narrating what was happening at particular locations. Later in the season, I met with Grow with Trees at the Trees & Utilities conference to experience the final VR product. I was truly amazed and literally almost fell off my chair. It was just like standing in the middle of my ROW, and I could spin around and look in all directions. Talk about a wow factor. I went through all the slides, and I could see and feel my IVM story come alive.

"The feedback from others at the conference who viewed my ROW through this virtual-reality portal was very encouraging and positive," Payne continued. "They were not only impressed with the IVM program but also with this technology to bring it out and showcase utility vegetation maintenance."

Payne intends to incorporate VR/AR into a display of NYPA’s vegetation management program at a new visitor center the utility is planning in central New York. "After my experience with Grow with Trees’ VR project, I have proposed a booth at the new visitor center where a few people can go inside and view VR/AR on a screen," he said. "They’ll feel like they are standing in the middle of NYPA’s ROW. Various screens can showcase IVM, pollinators and pollinator habitat on the ROW, birds and animals that use the ROW, invasive species being managed on the ROW, etc. Options are endless, and this will be a great and memorable teaching tool."

Brian Kortum, manager of natural resources permitting at NiSource, had a similarly positive experience with VR. "Using the VR camera to record a proposed ROW project location has many benefits," he noted. "It brings the project location to life within the safety of the office environment, allowing various stakeholders to discuss the challenges without the need for everyone on site. The images can be simultaneously viewed at multiple locations on multiple devices, allowing for effective project collaboration and strategy discussions. 

"Not only does VR allow for more people to see the site and weigh in on the project, but it can be revisited over and over without any additional safety risks or added cost," Kortum continued. "It is also an extremely useful tool to communicate challenges and limitations to company leadership who otherwise would not have the opportunity to visit the project site."

Looking Forward

Every new technology presents a learning curve. VR/AR is not unique in this regard, but openness to innovation, emerging methods and technologies is important for moving the vegetation management industry forward. A wide range of practices from nonconventional vegetation management to VR/AR technologies are available, but people must be open to change and willing to adopt new decision-support technologies.

Utility vegetation management professionals should recognize VR/AR as mature technologies capable of enhancing training programs, supporting contract bidding, supplementing environmental monitoring and providing virtual outreach opportunities for clients, stakeholders and the public. ♦

Orville McLean is the project manager for training and technical development with ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. He has been in the vegetation management industry for eight years and lives in snowbound Canada.

John Steelman is a project coordinator for Grow with Trees. He has traversed the Rocky Mountains with the U.S. Forest Service, spent three years abroad and now resides in the foothills of sunny Colorado.

About the Author

Orville McLean

Orville McLean is the project manager for training and technical development with ArborMetrics Solutions Inc. He has been in the vegetation management industry for eight years and lives in snowbound Canada.

About the Author

John Steelman

John Steelman is a project coordinator for Grow with Trees. He has traversed the Rocky Mountains with the U.S. Forest Service, spent three years abroad, and now resides in the foothills of sunny Colorado.

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